Ripple Effect: Unlocking the value of digital is all about smart planning

Ripple Effect: Unlocking the value of digital is all about smart planning

Digital technology has proven to be an essential tool in enabling utilities to deliver improvements for their operations and for the communities they serve. But “going digital” is not an outcome, it is a way to solve problems.

This was one of the major trends that emerged in Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation – Xylem’s new paper that captures insights from 18 global utility leaders and experts about their experience of digitalization.

One of the key contributors, Peter Verlaan, Director at Dutch water utility waterschap Aa en Maas, spoke to Making Waves about the importance of focusing on the problem to solve rather than diving straight into digital. 

waterschap Aa en Maas has a reputation for being an early innovator. Can you tell us a little bit about your utility’s approach to digital transformation?

We have prioritized investments in technology since the 1970s. As a large utility responsible for sustainably purifying 300 million liters of wastewater for more than 778,000 residents and businesses in the province of Brabant, we recognize the need to be innovative to deliver clean and safe water for our users. 

While we may have started on this path more than 50 years ago, our digital transformation is still a work in progress. We are constantly exploring and implementing new technologies and iterating towards more sophisticated systems as we go. For us, our digital transformation strategy is just that – a strategy. One that is anchored in the problem we’re trying to solve, rather than the solutions we want to implement. 

For us, “going digital” is a way to solve our utility’s most pressing issues. We focus on deploying solutions that align with our strategic goals and prioritize investments that deliver measurable value to create momentum for further innovation. This thoughtful approach has served us well!

Can you tell us about some of the digital approaches and solutions the utility has deployed so far, and the value they have delivered?

As part of our recent water-management plan, we wanted to explore the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in treatment processes, while also looking at the broader digital optimization of our wastewater network. We recognize the strategic value of combining the vast knowledge of our process managers from the field with sophisticated digital tools. Computers can spot things in data that humans might not see.  

We also understand the value of pilot projects to prove the power of digital. In one wastewater network project, we used decision intelligence to dynamically control assets – such as pump stations and overflow locations. The data we collected was compelling. It showed that digital optimization could reduce flow towards our wastewater treatment plant by up to 30 percent, or 1000 m3/h, during dry weather conditions. 

These deployments are helping us meet our operational goals while realizing the combined impact on effluent quality through reduced chemical and energy use. 

By combining the operational knowledge of our people and our municipality's people with insights from digital technology, we also can achieve regulatory compliance. For us, that means meeting the European Union (EU) directive standards we strive for.

How do you balance the need to be innovative with meeting customer and wider stakeholder expectations?

In the business of water, reliability is key – wastewater treatment directly impacts people’s lives. So, if something is not proven, stakeholders will be understandably wary. So how do you innovate while building trust? 

At waterschap Aa en Maas, we invest in proving digital technologies during the pilot phase. We run our normal system and compare the output to the newer system. If we tell our stakeholders what we are doing and show them the results, show them how it helps our process managers, we gain their trust. 

We also work to build trust among our team. For example, we include teams early in the process and learned that involving them in our pilot projects empowers them to drive progress. We also run workshops to bring people together, providing a forum for collaboration and innovation. All of this takes work and can be a slow burn at first, but it’s so important to an effective strategy.

What advice would you give to other utilities who are looking to implement a similar digital strategy?

Ultimately, the success of a utility’s digital strategy is a team effort, from leadership to field teams and everyone in between. Look to your people first, take care of them, and involve them at every turn. Otherwise, it will never work.

It’s also important to consider the processes within your utility. What are your key goals and how will you achieve them? Who are you dependent on to achieve those goals? Assess the risks, understand how you can mitigate them, and determine comfort-levels across the organization. It is impossible to manage every risk up front – if you tried to, you would never get started. Go into projects with your eyes open and mitigate the risks where you can. 

This approach has allowed us to keep moving and to keep innovating at a sustainable pace. It is how we have worked for more than 50 years, and it is how we intend to keep working so we can continue to deliver transformative outcomes for our community, now and well into the future.